Peace by Spring?

For the first time since March 1998, when violent clashes erupted between Serbian security forces and ethnic Albanian separatists in the Yugoslav southern province of Kosovo, international diplomats sound optimistic.

Peace by Spring?

For the first time since March 1998, when violent clashes erupted between Serbian security forces and ethnic Albanian separatists in the Yugoslav southern province of Kosovo, international diplomats sound optimistic.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Weeks ago, mediators were grudgingly admitting that the harshness of Balkan winter had more to do with maintaining the fragile truce then their own efforts. Now they claim a basic agreement can be reached within weeks.

Most ethnic Albanian leaders have already agreed to attend the peace conference in France in early February, and Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic has signalled his approval. The two sides will be given a week to negotiate, after which they will, diplomats believe, sign a deal ensuring a high degree of autonomy for Kosovo, while maintaining the province within Yugoslav borders for the next three years at least.

A glance at last year's developments doesn't provide much basis for such enthusiasm. While violence raged in the province, claiming almost 2,000 lives and leaving tens of thousands homeless, the world looked on with dismay and confusion. Months of persistent shuttling of international envoys and mediators between Belgrade and Pristina failed to bring the two sides an inch closer to the negotiating table, and NATO's threats of air-raids proved equally ineffective. The only visible result was the deployment of some 2,000 unarmed observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the province, agreed in October between Milosevic and U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. But even before these monitors were fully deployed, they were caught in controversy, as the mission failed to stop or even verify the alleged massacre of dozens of Albanians in the village of Racak in mid-January. Meanwhile, rifts deepened not only between Western countries and Serb-inclined Russia and China, but also between the U.S. and some of its European allies.

Suddenly the international community has now spoken with one voice, clear and determined. It wants peace and it wants it now, or more precisely, by mid-March. Also, surprisingly, the U.S. is ready to deploy ground troops to implement the agreement, although it was not at all enthusiastic about it until last week.

There is a reason for this newly discovered political will. The Kosovo crisis threatened to spoil, if not completely ruin, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of NATO in April 1999. Western politicians suddenly realised that the celebration, designed not only to mark the occasion but also to promote NATO's expansion and its new role in the post cold-war world, would not look good against the background of burning villages and civilian plight in Kosovo. The idea that on that particular day the world would see mighty NATO as powerless to stop scrappy Serbian forces and ragtag Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) from setting the whole region aflame was clearly too much, and hence the sudden will to commit political and military resources to compel and agreement.

For Kosovo Albanians in general, and for their formal political leader Ibrahim Rugova in particular, the potential deployment of NATO troops is more than welcome. A Western military presence would not only ensure that Serbian security forces keep away from ethnic Albanian villages, but would also prevent the province from plunging into chaos after a Serbian withdrawal. So far, the KLA has not done much to establish the rule of law on the territory under its control, and a possibility of open war between rival factions within the movement has never been far away. NATO's presence would also restore much of Rugova's crumbling credibility. As an advocate of peaceful resistance, Rugova was almost crushed between Serbia's hammer and KLA's anvil, and his political--and even physical--survival was highly uncertain.

It may seem less clear how Milosevic would benefit from a deal, but there is something in it for him as well. From the beginning, his determination to control Kosovo was deliberately inflated beyond its real proportion. Despite its historical and symbolic value, Kosovo is--and has been for quite a while--an albatross around Serbia's neck. The costs of maintaining Belgrade rule in the province are estimated to be at least $1 million per day, possibly twice as much. The international community's new determination now provides Milosevic with a perfect opportunity to toss the problem in someone else's lap. In return for his signature on a peace agreement, he will demand--and probably get--the removal of the "outer wall of sanctions" still in place from the Bosnian war period, and the readmission of rump Yugoslavia into the UN, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. For a third time in the past several years, he can swap land for power, emerge as a peacemaker and, as his propaganda likes to portray him, a "key factor of stability in the Balkans".

Does this means that there will indeed be peace in Kosovo by April? Not necessarily. The KLA, which has the most to lose from any deal, remains a dark horse. At least some of its factions will continue the struggle, possibly resorting to classic terrorism, and local Serbs may respond in the same way. Also, Milosevic's ability to start a fresh crisis elsewhere in the region--Macedonia? Montenegro? Serbia proper?--should not be underestimated. One thing is certain: NATO's involvement in the Balkans is just beginning.

Dejan Anastasijevic is a journalist with Vreme magazine in Belgrade.

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